Can Rob Ford Conquer his Pain and Become an Inspiration?

The signs of trauma have been unmistakable for years: the obesity, the bombast, the bellicose defensiveness, the need to project a larger-than-life persona as compensation for low self-esteem. And then, more recently, reports of self-soothing with substances like cocaine and alcohol, followed by denial, failed commitments to sober up, more denial and, finally, treatment for addiction: a common personal trajectory, become public because the anti-hero is the mayor of Canada’s largest city.  In the Jerry Springer culture of North America this man becomes a laughing stock, his plight a fodder for cheap-laugh comedians and scandal-mongering commentators.

The most telling aspect of the Rob Ford saga has been the absence of empathy towards a human being who is suffering and, clearly, has suffered all his life. Underneath Ford’s paper-thin hubris and achingly evident desperation to be liked is the pain of a child who was mistreated or, at the very least, deprived of acceptance and emotional nurture. We come to soothe ourselves through substances, food or addictive behaviours when, as young children, we were hurt and not soothed. There are no exceptions. Ford’s public drama may have been self-authored, but the distress driving it was inflicted before he had any choice in the matter. Addiction is an attempt not to feel that distress.

In my fourteen years of medical work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, perhaps North America’s most concentrated area of drug use, I never met one female patient who had not been sexually abused in childhood, nor a patient of any gender who had not suffered trauma, abandonment or neglect. Nor have I ever met an addict of any kind, anywhere, who, in childhood, had not experienced significant emotional loss. This always proves to be the case, even with people who, owing to the power of self-protective denial, initially assert that they had a “happy” upbringing.

“Traumatic life experiences during childhood and adolescence were far more common in an obese population than was comfortably recognized,” wrote the authors of a landmark paper published in 2010. Their article was entitled Obesity: Problem, Or Solution, Or Both?  As the research has amply demonstrated, that astute observation applies not only to overeating, but to all addictions, whether to substances or, for example, to gambling, shopping, or obsessive sexual roving. For all the problems they inevitably create, all addictions begin as a person’s forlorn attempt to solve the problem of shame, isolation, unbearable emotional hurt and emptiness.

Addiction need not remain a tragedy: neither Rob Ford’s nor that of anyone else. With recognition of the problem arises the possibility of transformation, of arriving at a state of genuine self-acceptance, vitality, honesty, and humility. That has been the experience of many human beings, even ones with severe trauma and with life circumstances not anywhere as favourable as that of the Toronto mayor. People achieving such a state may even express gratitude for the addiction itself: the harsh but truthful mentor that led them back to themselves. We call that recovery: the finding, the getting back of something precious. “I found my self when I recovered from addiction,” former addicts often say.

It is an all-too-common failing of the medical approach to addiction treatment, and of the rehab industry in general, that the pain and trauma at the core of addiction is ignored.  The disturbing events that fostered the addiction remain unexplored and the emotional dynamics that keep fuelling it are unresolved. The focus, instead, is on extirpating the behaviours of addiction, which is like trying to control a house fire by siphoning away the smoke; or on the diseased brain biology of addiction, as if neurobiology were not shaped by life experience.

We need programs that do not separate the behaviours of dependency from a person’s life history, do not see the addict in isolation from the multigenerational troubles of his or her family, and do not impose an artificial and unscientific barrier between emotional experience and brain physiology.

Addiction is both a daunting challenge and an opportunity to heal, for the individual and for the family whose issues the identified addict embodies. Having incurred notoriety, the mayor of Toronto may become an inspiration to many if he is helped to salve the wounds that impelled him into compulsive substance use, if he finds the courage to accept his pain and not run from it, and the humility to acknowledge that behind the physical and political heft he has gathered there has been hiding a sensitive and vulnerable being, in need–as we all are—of compassion.


This originally appeared in the OpEd section of the Toronto Star on June 2, 2014.


21 thoughts on “Can Rob Ford Conquer his Pain and Become an Inspiration?”

    1. Barbara Mackenzie (driver extraordinaire;)

      Gabor, You are a Maestro! Weaving heart & science into life. I am always so grateful for your openness to speak your truth, to expose the silent undercurrents and to tap into our sense of humanity. Thank You!

  1. Susan Dmyterko

    Thank you for reminding us of the value of compassion and that from adversity can come great strength and healing.

  2. Great article! I often wonder about the media’s approach out about celebrity’s addictions and private matters. Ridiculing and gossiping about it does not help anyone. The compassionate approach you are so famous for is the only way to deal with any addiction or any problem.
    I hope as you do that Rob Ford will find the strength and the courage to deal with his pain.
    Thank you for the great work you do.

  3. Melissa Scott

    Great article. Very well written. I’ve been to rehab a few times and the underlying issues were never touched. Thank you. Your understanding of addiction is profound.

  4. Reading Hungry Ghosts impacted my life more than I can relate here. Your understanding and insight into the biology of addiction are inspiring. I wait ever hopeful for the day that front-line physicians understand and practice methodology like yours. Is there anyone else out there like you that everyday people have access to?

  5. I enjoy and respect your work, and I agree with what you say above. I don’t think the media should be making a joke of his situation. (Frankly, even when the media does make comments, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, and others all genuinely emphasize that he needs to get help.) However, I do think the media needs to cover (and not help hide or enable) the actions of the leader of the largest city in our country, particularly when he makes sexist, homophobic, or racist remarks or decisions as a public representative. Rob Ford needs help and needs to be addressing it, not distracting himself by remaining in a media circus and making questionable decisions in a role he’s unable to perform at the moment. A number of people have less empathy and compassion than they normally would because of how he and his family are not taking the situation or his impact on others seriously, and because of how long this has gone on (years of lies have abused the public trust). Some people have issues with his politics and will continue to do so (regardless of his sobriety) but would offer more support on a personal level if he genuinely addressed his situation and sought help. Sad story all around…

  6. Brendan Armstrong

    Wish him all kinds of luck dealing with his substance abuse issues, and his personal demons…. but the best way to do that is being ANYWHERE outside the mayor’s chair.

  7. Great article! I think that for most people it is easy to not feel any empathy towards him because of his blatant arrogance and narcissism. Hopefully he gets the proper treatment to make the necessary changes in his life. But I also have a feeling he would have to leave all his enablers that surround him…including family members.

  8. Barbara Mackenzie

    Schools spend money and time on character education but at 3pm those kids go home to a socially acceptable form of bullying — children are listening (to conversations about Rob Ford) in their homes, hearing it and reading about it in the news.

    Our own judgement becomes laced with the toxic opinions of others, in all their varied expressions, passions and choice of words. We’ve all heard broadcasters, journalists, show hosts & parents say horribly, bullying things without understanding what lies beneath. The children are listening. Gabor, your clarity to put a finger on what we are doing, or NOT doing in life, is a wonderful thing.

  9. Brilliant educated insight! I can relate to what Dr. Mate is saying. Try to relate to what Dr. Mate is saying, not only to whom he is saying it about. It’s a message of support & awareness for all addictions in a non-judgmental, compassionate, health care capacity. All we need is just one person who cares. Thank you Dr. Mate for being that one physician who cares and gets it.

  10. Finally some compassion for a man who is so very obviously dealing with a great deal of suffering! Over the years I have watched closely as addictions manifest themselves through the hurtful and harmful actions of several close friends. I am now easily able to spot the telltale signs of someone who is simply self-medicating in an attempt to rid themselves of the painful effects of early childhood trauma.

    I can only hope that we as a society (including our popular media) will eventually stop pointing fingers and cameras long enough to turn the mirror on ourselves. When we begin to realize we all have the capacity to understand the root of addictions and be compassionate toward addicts maybe things will change. When the laughter ends perhaps the healing can begin. Thank you Gabor, for being our teacher!

    1. I’d be interested in you listing those “telltale signs of someone who is simply self-medicating in an attempt to rid themselves of the painful effects of early childhood trauma”. It certainly would help. Thanks

  11. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of compassion. When we lack compassion, we see our fellow beings as separate, as “others” to be feared, disdained or made fun of. Humor is our way of avoiding the dysfunction we keep hidden in ourselves and marginalizing those whose dysfunction is clearly visible. You might say, “it is a normal response to an abnormal situation”. Thank you for sharing your pain and encouraging us to look at our own.

  12. Beautiful writing as always Dr. Mate. Funny…when this happened with Rob Ford I prayed he would somehow come across a book or You Tube clip of your work because I felt Rob Ford could really benefit from your wisdom. We all could. I truly hope Rob Ford reads this article one day! He could maybe then use his experiences through healing to change the way mental health and addiction issues in Toronto are handled and bring Dr. Mate’s wisdom to the attention of more people!

  13. Beverley Anne Babb

    Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Dr. Gabor Mate for his selfless giving of his expertise and great compassion to various causes and his willingness to help lessen and to cure, whenever possible, some of the problems of society in general and of individuals in particular. Thank you, thank you, dear Dr.Mate.

  14. Anny Selva Verhovsek

    –A breath of oxygen in a society where the fixes for addiction amount to, well, “fixes”….
    –Compassionate, insightful. Addresses the process of healing humans, not fixing them—let alone using them as circus buffoons to distract us from our own pain and society’s pervasive dysfunctions.
    As a long-time educational counselor, I thank you for elevating the discussion on Rob Ford, to the benefit of all.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *